mARTSm Off the wall, into your hands

Iain Gale introduces the first art exhibition to come free with your Sunday paper, `Take me (I'm yours)' at the Serpentine
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The Independent Culture
AS YOU opened this newspaper this morning, you might not have been surprised that out of it fell a piece of paper. But don't screw it up and throw it away. Take another look. It's not an irritating "special offer" - it's "a work of art''; one of a set of 12 prints by artists distributed free and exclusively today with every copy of the Independent on Sunday. It is also an integral part of a unique show at the Serpentine Gallery in London which seeks to challenge our notions of what it is that defines an exhibition and how we approach the art that it contains.

The exhibition, "Take me (I'm yours)", may seriously challenge your sense of what art is; but it should be fun. It is the brainchild of innovative young Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who has persuaded 12 artists from Europe and the USA to participate in what he calls "the opportunity to do everything that is normally prohibited". What this means is that the public is being invited to participate in the creation of the artwork and only when they have done so can any be considered complete.

Obrist's show operates on four levels - in the gallery, here as a newspaper insert, as a computer programme on the Internet, and as a catalogue consisting of a box of 36 artists' postcards. You become involved the moment that you enter the gallery, access the Internet, buy the catalogue or, as you have done today, opened the newspaper.

"Its important," says Obrist, "to realise that what is in the newspaper is actually a part of the exhibition - not merely something that accompanies it. The exhibition might appear to take place in the gallery, but it also does so equally on the Internet and in the Independent on Sunday. As Marcel Brood-thaers once said, `a museum is only one truth surrounded by many other truths'."

Although he has organised similar "exhibitions" in the Austrian press, Obrist believes that this is the first time all the readers of a British newspaper will have become involved in such an experience. The show's sponsor, Absolut Vodka, has paid for the 400,000-plus prints that just fell out of your paper: an impressive gesture of confidence in a show which is bound to raise the old question, "but is it art?" Obrist himself is in no doubt as to the answer. He even sees newspapers themselves as an art form. They are, he says "virtual museums" in which the articles on the pages function in the same way as the works on display in a gallery: selected by editor/curators and changed every day. More specifically, though, he emphasises: "the inserts in the Independent on Sunday are central to the exhibition because the theme of the show is dispersal."

What this actually means is that, in addition to the print you receive today, every visitor to the gallery will leave with an "art work". This could be one of 10,000 badges produced by Gilbert & George decorated with a detail from their recent photographic works in which they pose nude before their own suits. It might be one of the tiny photographs with which Hans-Peter Feldmann has covered the gallery walls and which will be replaced as fast as they are removed.

The Serpentine will be transformed into a bizarre supermarket: visitors can wander past Lawrence Weiner's text reading "Art is for Everybody" (in Haitian) en route to buy fruit and veg from Jef Geys or a secondhand book from Maria Eichhorn. Those too exhausted to go on can relax in Franz West's reclining chair or lose themselves in Carsten Hller's psychedelic room, while others, with more traditional artistic inclinations, might enjoy using Lawrence Weiner's stencil to create their own graffiti on the gallery walls. The most obvious illustration of the theory of "dispersal" will be Christian Boltanski's piles of second- hand clothes. The artist has provided plastic bags in which you can take these away. Whether, when you get them home, you "re-assemble" the shirts, socks and sweaters into "sculptures" or just wear them, is entirely up to you. Think carefully in future before you throw away that old shirt. It might be a work of art.

All this is firmly rooted in the tradition of the "found object" and the "ready made": those mass-produced objects of often forgotten practicality, whose function has been altered by their becoming the focus of the artist's thoughts. Depending on your standpoint, they're either the essence of all true art or a massive confidence trick. Although now over 80 years old, the idea of the "objet trouv" remains, for the majority of the British public, quite baffling. And now Obrist and his artists have further confused the issue by extending the boundaries to include notional artworks in this exhibition, such as Douglas Gordon's competition in which the first prize is a blind-date dinner with the artist. By this definition, even if you don't come away with anything tangible from the Serpentine, you can still experience "art" in a shoeshine or a massage from Christine Hill. And who could fail to cherish the memory of a ride on Fabrice Hybert's "Genital Swing" (don't forget your condom).

Whatever the extent of your involvement, in the gallery and the newspaper, you are taking part in an experiment. And as you read this, you might begin to realise that, like it or not, Obrist has already coerced you, by virtue of what you hold in your hand, into the role of artist, critic and collector. As he points out "you're free to swap the work you find in the paper with a friend or to send off for the entire set". You might, of course, just want to throw it in the dustbin. But even your decision to do that will be interpreted (by Obrist at least) as evidence that his exhibition has inspired your critical faculties.

Obrist promises that it doesn't matter if you don't understand it all. The layman's response is just as valid as that of the most recondite critic or art historian.

! Serpentine Gallery, W2 (071-723 9072), to 1 May. Daily 10-6; free